“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” - Matthew 10:16
My first observation is that Matthew is getting us to think about ourselves as animals. I often worry about the use of analogies, in that their use in a story changes the story to be based on our individual experiences with the animals. Fortunately, all four of these animals are an integral part of our biblical tradition. But that tradition is also based on our individual experiences in church and may limit our ability to grasp all of the significance of this short verse.
Secondly, when I see sheep in a passage, I immediately link sheep with Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.” But the shepherd is not part of this passage. Part of the reason for that omission is that Jesus is saying this. In addition, Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for a time when He will not be with them. So that sets the stage for this scripture.
We are His flock with all of its associated strengths and weaknesses. There is strength in numbers to help with protection. But from the introduction for this Lenten series, you learned that sheep have poor vision. And having been to a few sheep farms, it is relatively easy to scatter a flock of sheep.
The wolves in the verse can easily refer to wicked people. Then there are all the temptations of the world that can distract and scatter us. Wolves seem to imply a very deadly outcome. That is the result for your Christian life if wolves separate you from the flock.
When we get to the term “serpent” in the story, we can directly associate it with “snakes.” The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve and the cunningness of the serpent in the story. Beyond that is our own experience with snakes and its added influence on our individual interpretation of these words. Then there is also story of Disney’s Jungle Book where the serpent has a visual reality to influence our understanding of this term.
Not many of us have any real experience with doves, but scripture has prepared us to understand them by association with innocence, purity, The Holy Spirit, and the ability to carry us to a higher level.
Jesus is using these words and symbols to prepare his disciples for a world after Him. One that will not include his direct protection. One that will challenge them. One that requires them to react in many different ways to lead and follow a Christian life. Their story becomes our story as we try to follow Christ’s example to and in the world, after his passing.